By Ken Epstein
A man who was sentenced to life in prison for a 2011 murder in North Oakland was quietly released from prison last September after a key witness reversed her previous trial testimony, now saying in sworn testimony that she had felt “pressured” to lie on the stand by Oakland police Detective Phong Tran, who secretly paid her thousands of dollars before the trial.
Giovonte Douglas, who had served nine years in prison, was released along with Cartier Hunter, who was also serving a life sentence for the murder.
The case was first made public this week by journalist Darwin BondGraham in Oaklandside, an online newspaper, which reported that it had learned about the case last week from a criminal justice source in Alameda County.
Prosecutors in former DA Nancy O’Malley’s office ultimately agreed to dismiss the case after Detective Tran admitted in court papers to paying the woman. However, he claimed the amount she was paid was much less than the $30,000 she said she received from him.
According to court records, Tran secretly paid her between $1,500 and $2,000, some of it before the trial.
Tran may also have committed perjury, according to news reports. Court records indicate he testified at the trial that he first met the alleged eyewitness, Aisha Weber, in 2013, two years after the shooting. However, Tran acknowledged recently in court documents that he knew Weber well before the 2011 homicide.
“Tran’s pre-existing relationship with the key witness—essentially his confidential informant—and the cash payments he made to her were not disclosed to Douglas’ attorneys before, during, or after his 2016 trial,” according to Oaklandside.
Detective Tran, a longtime member of the homicide unit, was placed on administrative leave last year in connection with the case but is currently back on duty. In 2021, he earned $427,949.23 in pay and benefits, according to Transparent California.
Matthew Dalton, Douglas’s attorney in the fight to overturn the conviction, said, “I found Detective Tran’s conduct to be shocking,” according to Oaklandside.
“Pretending a witness is simply an unknown Good Samaritan rather than a background informant deprived the prosecution, the defense, and the fact-finders essential information necessary to evaluate her credibility. Similarly, paying a witness is rife with peril. That is why the rules of disclosure are rightly so strict. Secretly paying witnesses is outrageous. In the end, everyone loses: Mr. Douglas, Mr. Hunter, and the family of Charles Butler.”
Butler, a 23-year-old graduate of the Merchant Marine Academy, was shot and killed in 2011, allegedly during an argument over a parking spot in North Oakland. Douglas, 31, and Hunter, 34, were arrested three years later and convicted of murder in 2016.
Weber, the alleged eyewitness, said in her statement that Tran took advantage of her because she was homeless single mother and destitute, pressuring her to testify against the two men.
Alameda County Chief Public Defender Brendon Woods said in a statement reported in the East Bay Times that his office has been “raising alarms” about Tran for years, but that they “fell on deaf ears” during former DA O’Malley’s tenure.
He said his office already has three additional homicide cases where “we raised concerns” about Tran’s ethics.
“We’re hoping things will be different under DA (Pamela) Price and were encouraged when she announced the formation of a Police Accountability Unit,” Woods said to reporters, reported in the East Bay Times.
“We have urged her to investigate Detective Tran’s misconduct and to dismiss all the cases he has worked on — past and present. … How could anyone trust a police officer who keeps secret his relationship with the key witness in a murder case when asked about it in court?”
The Anti Police-Terror Project (APTP) in Oakland also released a statement.
“The Oakland Police Department has and continues to be fraught with corruption and scandals … Incidents like this are exactly why Chief Armstrong needed to be held accountable for his coverup of officer misconduct. This type of behavior is the rule – not the exception,” said Cat Brooks, co-founder of APTP.
“Until we hold these officers accountable, corruption will continue to run rampant, and innocent people will continue to be sent to prison for crimes they did not commit,” Brooks said.
In addition, APTP criticized prosecutors in the case. “Defense attorneys for the exonerated man state that former DA Nancy O’Malley’s office never disclosed that the witness was a paid informant — and public defenders had warned O’Malley’s office about Officer Tran in particular, but she failed to act.
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